Parisian actress Marion Cotillard was practically an unknown to American audiences when she won hearts, minds and a well-deserving Oscar for her performance as legendary French singer Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
It’s been eight years since, and while she took plenty of wonderful roles in English-speaking films, her finest works still seems to come from when she’s back at her homeland.
So much so that, when compiling her 10 best performances in my opinion, I ended up with five films spoken in her native tongue. A few of them are not as well-known as they should be, so there’s an opportunity here to find true gems from the very unique French cinema.
Then again, Marion is always so damn good in everything that any of these films would be a wise choice if you haven’t watched them. Even when the movie’s not a masterpiece, her presence elevates it at least a little.
Here are our 10 favorite performances by our current favorite French lady.
10. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
This underseen Soderbergh stunner is a nearly perfect movie with precise and intense performances by an all-star ensemble cast, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan and, of course, our girl Marion Cotillard. She plays a doctor caught in the middle of a deadly virus epidemic, and like most of the characters, she seems almost helpless to stop it.
Cotillard’s performance is the perfect summary for Soderbergh’s film. There’s an element of despair and misinformation, a sense of restrained dread that permeates her character and the general proceedings. Only Cotillard could be so perfectly in sync with the film she’s in.
9. Love Me If You Dare (Yann Samuell, 2003)
Yann Samuell’s directing debut is a deft and stylish romantic comedy with more than a touch of cynicism and dark humor to spice it up.
A weird fable of two people in an increasingly irresponsible game of truth and dare that spares no one around them, Love Me If You Dare is an antidote for romantics out there who’ve had just enough of Amèlie Poulain. As the central couple, Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard scintillate and provoke each other with gusto and understated charm.
Cotillard is specially winning, of course, because if you thought she could not play to our basic instincts of loving (rather than understanding deeply) a character, you’re in for a treat. Her comic timing is pitch perfect, and so is the daring energy she brings to her character.
8. Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
The movie that has one of the last truly great Johnny Depp performances is also one that Cotillard nearly steals from under him. As the girl that stole John Dillinger’s hardened criminal heart, the French actress combines strength of spirit, a winning smile, and a sense of the tragedy behind her story, and the way it all happened in the background of Dillinger’s own rise and downfall.
Michael Mann’s film is a strange (and great) mix of traditional gangster movie and arthouse cinema, and Cotillard nails that tricky tone with a character she builds for both dimensions of the narrative.
Impetuous, intensely emotional and full of personal and dramatic incursions in the middle of a straightforward narrative, Public Enemies is a peculiar animal that’s not easy to tame for any actor – but not only Cotillard does it, she manages to stick to your mind after it’s over.
7. Innocence (Lucile Hadzilalilovic, 2004)
Marion Cotillard’s knack for challenging tonal balances didn’t come just on her Hollywood phase, though. This little-seen curiosity of her early career shows Cotillard as one of the teachers of an all-female boarding school, navigating through a movie fascinated with teenage (or, better yet, “tween”) innocence, with female sexuality, with the coming-of-age of women.
Director Lucile Hadzilalilovic’s film eschews traditionally construed dramatic conflict and becomes an enthralling arthouse experience that’s not ashamed of leaning into sensations rather than narrative.
That’s why building a character is so hard in Innocence, and yet Cotillard stands out in a performance that not only truly understands the film it’s in, it also transcends it and brings welcome signs of humanity to an observation exercise that could have grown tired otherwise.
6. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)
Still probably the greatest Allen movie of our current decade, Midnight in Paris is the most inspired of all the director’s “tourist phase” films, maybe because Paris is the most inspiring city in the world.
The fact is Allen weaves a beautiful story out of successful writer Gil’s (Owen Wilson) trips into the past of the French capital, having fun with his depiction of historical figures and building a truly engaging and well-built romance for a change.
Marion Cotillard’s has to take some of the responsibility for that, though, as she becomes one of Allen’s most thoroughly charming and interesting leading ladies as Adrianna, the girl from the past that gets Gil thinking about leaving the present for good. Appropriately so, she’s a shining mirage that slowly comes into focus and stays just as captivating when we see her clearly.